The Youth Vote: Gaining Clout

Vote or Die! That was the battle cry of Sean “P. Diddy” Combs and other political hip-hop activists. It appears that young voters answered by turning out at the polls in record numbers. Nearly 21 million Americans under age 30 cast their votes in November 2004, an increase of 4.6 million from the 2000 presidential election. According to David A. Bositis, senior research analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, there was a 25% increase in black voter turnout. He attributes much of that upsurge to young adults. While national figures have yet to be broken down by race, various precincts and exit polls across the nation show a 50% to 70% increase among black voters age 18 to 29.

The highly publicized efforts to push young people to the polls proved more successful this past presidential election than in previous years. “Young people saw issues that had an impact on their lives. They decided this was the time to get out and vote,” says Melanie L. Campbell, executive director of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, the nonpartisan, nonprofit group that created Black Youth Vote! to educate youth about the political process and to increase voter participation at historically black colleges and universities and other outlets. Campbell says the top three concerns for young adults were economic opportunities, foreign policy, and healthcare/HIV-AIDS. “You have more people getting master’s degrees and Ph.D.s, yet they can’t find work or entrepreneurial opportunities,” she explains. Also, the war in Iraq affects young adults because “they are the ones fighting and dying. This is their war much like Vietnam was the war of the ’60s young generation.”

More young people cast their votes for Kerry than Bush; however, this doesn’t mean that they automatically identify themselves as Democrats. There is still a lack of partisanship among young adults, including the 22% of black voters aged 18 to 25 who characterize themselves as Independents.

Some critics have suggested the level of frustration with how this election played out will deter young voters. But Campbell notes this is a group that’s more strategic. She believes we will see more young adults running for local, state, and national office, many inspired by Sen. Barack Obama’s victory. “They know that the vote is part of the process, not the whole process.”